Wireless bandwidth is like land in Manhattan -- it's extremely valuable because they're not making more of it.
But we sure are using more of it. The wireless-industry association CTIA reported in October 2011 that the number of wireless devices in the U.S. had, for the first time, exceeded the number of people.
And Mobile Future, a coalition of vendors and consumers, estimated in a March 2011 report that by 2014, voice traffic will comprise only 2 percent of the total wireless traffic in the United States -- a worrisome statistic because, as the report noted, smartphones consume 24 times more data than old-school cell phones, and tablets consume 120 times more data than smartphones. (See "Data needs bandwidth, but how much?" for details.)
The result: Wireless networks are edging near capacity, not just in the United States, but all over the world. Credit Suisse conducted a survey last year that revealed mobile networks in North America were running at 80 percent of capacity, with 36 percent of base stations facing capacity constraints. The average globally for base station capacity utilization, the report said, was 65 percent.
The problem is going to get worse before it gets better. With advancements in connected cars, smart grids, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, and domestic installations such as at-home health monitoring systems, wireless demands will only increase.
As with all things mobile, there are no simple answers, if only because potential solutions rely on agreement among a sizable and incompatible array of players -- from spectrum owners (both telcos and broadcasters) and regulators to government agencies and, of course, consumers demanding the latest in cool devices and applications.
With all this sturm und drang, what happens to businesses that are increasingly relying on the productivity that mobile devices deliver? Their numbers aren't inconsiderable: According to a recent IDC report, 75 percent of the North American workforce was mobile in 2010, and iPass reports that 91 percent of mobile workers use their smartphones for work.